'It's Not Just About Iraq'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 23, 2006 12:40 PM

Vice President Cheney yesterday offered an unusually revealing glimpse of his worldview -- one in which a withdrawal from Iraq may have less to do with Iraq, and more to do with the message it would send to the world about the limits of American power.

In Cheney's view, withdrawal from Iraq would first and foremost make the United States look weak. And that, in turn, would have cataclysmic domino-style effects across the globe: Afghanistan could fall, and so could Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Iranians could get nukes. And the United States itself would become dramatically more vulnerable to attack, not to mention lose its ability to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests.

Cheney really loathes weakness. And like his fellow neoconservatives, he is consumed with the conviction that an all-powerful United States is both imperative to American security and the best thing for the world. Moral leadership, multilateralism, containment, human rights -- those are all less crucial than maintaining unquestioned power, at the point of a gun if necessary.

(See, for example, this statement of principles from the Project for the New American Century, of which Cheney is a signatory.)

The problem with Cheney's philosophy, of course, is overreach. In Iraq, as in Vietnam before it, the United States may have started something we can't finish.

Now, if we stay in Iraq, we appear weak, too. In fact, if we withdrew, we might be stronger. (See, for instance, former National Security Agency director Gen. William Odom 's contributions to NiemanWatchdog.org .)

But in Cheney's mindset, American might makes right -- so the invasion of Iraq couldn't have been a mistake. And backing off would be a global disaster.

Cheney on CNN

Here's the transcript of Cheney's interview with John King. Here are some video excerpts .

Shame on King for not asking Cheney any questions about Ron Suskind's new book, full of shocking revelations about Cheney's influence on the White House. (See my Monday and Tuesday columns.)

But King did ask what Cheney thought of a Democratic proposal for a timetable for withdrawal, and the vice president let loose:

"If we were to do that, it would be devastating from the standpoint of the global war on terror. It would affect what happens in Afghanistan. It would make it difficult for us to persuade the Iranians to give up their aspirations for nuclear weapons. It would threaten the stability of regimes like Musharraf in Pakistan and the Saudis in Saudi Arabia. It is -- absolutely the worst possible thing we could do at this point would be to validate and encourage the terrorists by doing exactly what they want us to do, which is to leave. . . .

"The fact of the matter is that we are in a global conflict. It's not just about Iraq. It's -- we've seen attacks around the world from New York and Washington, all the way around the Jakarta and Indonesia over the course of the last five years. Our strategy that we adopted after 9/11 of progressively going after the terrorists, going after states that sponsor terror, taking the fight to the enemy has been crucial in terms of our being able to defend the United States. I think one of the reasons we have not been struck again in five years -- and nobody can promise we won't -- but it's because we've taken the fight to them.

"And if Jack Murtha is successful in persuading the country that somehow we should withdraw now from Iraq, then you have to ask what happens to all of those people who've signed up with the United States, who are on our side in this fight against the radical extremist Islamic types of bin Laden and al Qaeda. What happens to the 12 million Iraqis who went to the polls last December and voted in spite of the assassins and the car bombers? What happens to the quarter of a million Iraqis who've gotten into the fight to take on the terrorists? The worst possible thing we could do is what the Democrats are suggesting. And no matter how you carve it, you can call it anything you want, but basically it is packing it in, going home, persuading and convincing and validating the theory that the Americans don't have the stomach for this fight."

Unreality Check

I've written repeatedly about the White House's apparent lack of a realistic sense of what's going on in Iraq. (See, most recently, my May 24 column .)

Cheney's powerful disquisition to CNN offers an insight into why that might be. In Cheney's mind, the U.S. role in Iraq is fundamentally part of a global chess game -- not a troubled, bloody occupation. And in his mind it's still a war with extremist Islamic terrorists -- when instead, as is increasingly obvious, U.S. troops are largely fighting and dying in battles with Iraqis opposed to U.S. occupation, and a sectarian civil war is breaking out all around them.

And hey, don't just take my word for it. White House spokesman Tony Snow agrees with me that the battle in Iraq is not, by and large, with extremist Islamic militants anymore.

In defense of Cheney's widely-mocked claim a year ago that the Iraq insurgency was in its "last throes," Snow on May 31 said as much.

"I don't want to try to back-interpret what the Vice President said," Snow said. "But let me just offer at least one view on it, which is, for a long time, when we talked about insurgency -- that is, 'we,' generally, Americans -- we thought of al Qaeda. And I think it's pretty safe to say that the al Qaeda and the foreign fighters remnant presence in Iraq has been dramatically reduced, such that, at least, in the opinions of people there, it is no longer the major factor when it comes to what's going on. Now you do have former members of the Saddam regime and you do have Iraqi citizens who are in entrenched opposition and are using terror and other tactics to try to derail democracy."

What's It All About?

In a review of Suskind's book in Salon, Gary Kamiya offers this context and perspective: "Many reasons have been advanced for why Bush decided to attack Iraq, a third-rate Arab dictatorship that posed no threat to the United States. Some have argued that Bush and Cheney, old oilmen, wanted to get their hands on Iraq's oil. Others have posited that the neoconservative civilians in the Pentagon, [Paul] Wolfowitz and [Douglas] Feith, and their offstage guru Richard Perle, were driven by their passionate attachment to Israel. Suskind does not address these arguments, and his own thesis does not rule them out as contributing causes. But he argues persuasively that the war, above all, was a 'global experiment in behaviorism': If the U.S. simply hit misbehaving actors in the face again and again, they would eventually change their behavior.

" 'The primary impetus for invading Iraq, according to those attending NSC briefings on the Gulf in this period, was to create a demonstration model to guide the behavior of anyone with the temerity to acquire destructive weapons or, in any way, flout the authority of the United States.' This doctrine had been enunciated during the administration's first week by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who had written a memo arguing that America must come up with strategies to 'dissuade nations abroad from challenging' America. Saddam was chosen simply because he was available, and the Wolfowitz-Feith wing was convinced he was an easy target.

"The choice to go to war, Suskind argues, was a 'default' -- a fallback, driven by the 'realization that the American mainland is indefensible.' America couldn't really do anything -- so Bush and Cheney decided they had to do something. And they decided to do this something, to attack Iraq, because after 9/11 Cheney embraced the radical doctrine found in the title of Suskind's book. 'If there's a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response,' Suskind quotes Cheney as saying. And then Cheney went on to utter the lines that can be said to define the Bush presidency: 'It's not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence. It's about our response.' "

And if you subscribe to that theory -- that invading Iraq was fundamentally a way of delivering a message about U.S. power -- you can see why anything short of absolute victory would be so unpalatable.

Cheney on North Korea

Cheney also weighed in with some surprisingly tension-reducing talk on North Korea. As Reuters reports, "Cheney called North Korea's missile capabilities 'fairly rudimentary' on Thursday despite fears Pyongyang is preparing a test launch of a weapon that could reach the United States."

Libby Watch

Cheney refused to answer King's questions about his indicted former chief of staff, Scooter Libby -- though the vice president did acknowledge that he may be called as a witness in Libby's trial.

"John, I am not going to comment on the case. It's -- I may be called as a witness. Scooter Libby, obviously, one of the finest men I've ever known -- he's entitled to the presumption of innocence. And I have not made any comments on the case up until now, and I won't."

Profile of a Stoic

William Douglas writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Cheney remains Cheney, a quiet, stoic force at the heart of the Bush administration. Despite rumors earlier this year that President Bush might ask him to resign, he still has Bush's ear, and his fingerprints still turn up on all manner of policy decisions, from war and domestic spying to spending 'earmarks' for allies."

Cheney on Himself

From the CNN interview: "[Y]our critics say, Dick Cheney has become this dark, nefarious force in the administration that believes in secrecy at all price, that believes congressional oversight is a nuisance. True?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't think I've changed any. I think I have been very consistent over time. I think, partly, it's important to remember how significant 9/11 was. And we are now engaged in a constant effort, obviously, to protect the nation against further attack.

"That means we need good intelligence. It means there have to be national security secrets. It means we need to be able to go after and capture or kill those people who are trying to kill Americans. That's not a pleasant business. It's a very serious business. And I suppose people sometimes look at my demeanor and say, well, he's the Darth Vader of the administration."

The Democratic Response

The Senate Democratic rapid-response team quickly issued a marked-up version of Cheney's CNN interview, giving Cheney an "F: Poorly Researched."

Cheney and Halliburton

William Greider writes in the Nation: "Amid all his other troubles, Vice President Richard Cheney is now stalked by a ghost from his past--the Richard Cheney who for five years was CEO of the Halliburton Company."

Greider writes about "a class-action investor lawsuit against Halliburton, recently revived after languishing for four years. It describes Cheney as not much different from other corporate titans ensnared by accusations of fraud. Brushing aside facts and subordinates' warnings, CEO Cheney made a series of daring but wrong decisions that were disastrous for the company. The managerial incompetence was compounded by fraudulent accounting gimmicks that concealed the company's true condition. Cheney, however, relentlessly issued bullish assurances, hiding the losses and pumping up the stock price. . . .

"The corporate scandal seems like old news now, since the basic facts were first revealed four years ago by the New York Times --generating a flurry of investor lawsuits. But the story has new life. The injured investors are now represented by William Lerach, the ferociously successful plaintiff lawyer who has won billions in securities litigation against major corporations and Wall Street banks, from Enron to Citigroup."

Anger in Cheney's Wake

Cheney was in Colorado last week, attending the AEI World Forum , and he apparently left some angry people in his wake.

The Vail Daily reports: "Eagle Town Manager William 'Willy' Powell was issued a summons for disorderly conduct and obstructing a peace officer in connection with an incident that occurred while the vice president's motorcade traveled through Eagle on June 15. . . .

"The sheriff's office reports that Powell got into a confrontation with a firefighter who was blocking the intersection of Highway 6 and Violet Lane -- the street to Powell's home, and his only access to Highway 6. . . .

"Volunteer firefighter Michael Montag told sheriff's deputies that Powell was waving his arms in the air, yelling, and cussing when he was unable to leave his house. Powell told deputies he needed to take his son to Denver International Airport to catch a flight."

Somewhat more disturbingly, J.K. Perry of the Vail Daily reports: "The U.S. Secret Service is offering no details about the arrest of Steven Howards, who they allege acted strangely around Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday during an economic summit in Beaver Creek.

" 'His behavior and demeanor wasn't quite right,' Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said on Friday. 'The agents tried to question him, and he was argumentative and combative.' "

Howards is apparently the founder and executive director of the Clean Airport Partnership, a nonprofit group based in Lakewood, Colo. devoted to improving environmental quality and energy efficiency at airports.

So was this guy just giving Cheney a dirty look? Or was it more than that?

Bush Leaves Hungary

Bush's outwardly successful, super-quick visit to Budapest to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising was nevertheless replete with ironies, contradictions, and tension.

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Ignoring the fact that the U.S. stood by while the Soviet Union crushed the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Bush told his Hungarian audience that 'people across the world . . . take inspiration from your example and draw hope from your success.' "

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "On a day when lawmakers in Washington were engaged in an intense debate over whether to withdraw troops from Iraq, Mr. Bush thanked the Hungarians for 'playing a vital role' in Operation Iraqi Freedom, neglecting to mention that Hungary withdrew its own troops more than a year ago."

Then there was the human-rights related tensions. "Those tensions were evident in Budapest on Thursday as the Hungarian president, Laszlo Solyom, welcomed Mr. Bush to a gilded chamber in the Sandor Palace. In brief remarks, Mr. Solyom said Hungary's commitment to democracy was coupled with a respect for human rights -- a possible reference to Guant?namo."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Bush seemed to have put the basic Hungarian sympathy to the test, in large measure because of anger with the U.S. invasion of Iraq and anti-terrorism detention policies that are not seen here to square with American ideals."

In fact, the Hungarians are particularly sensitive to the concept of occupation.

And it didn't necessarily help, Abramowitz writes, "that the Budapest trip was a bit of an afterthought for the White House, which had originally planned for a presidential trip to Ukraine but put it off because of the difficulties there in putting together a government after elections three months ago. The actual anniversary of the Hungarian uprising is in October, and more than 50 international leaders are expected to attend a celebration, Hungarian President L?szl? S?lyom told reporters."

Here is the transcript of remarks by Bush and S?lyom, and the text of Bush's speech.


I was a bit taken aback Wednesday at Bush's harsh response to a reporter who noted that most Europeans consider the United States the biggest threat to global stability.

According to Mike Allen in Time magazine, I wasn't alone.

" 'That's absurd,' the President shot back, describing it as 'an absurd statement.' His top aides, sitting in the fourth row of the news conference at the ornate Hofburg Palace in Vienna, responded with visible shock, clearly hoping he would elaborate."

He did, two questions later, but still belligerently.

Another Secret Spying Program

Eric Lichtblau and James Risen write in the New York Times: "Under a secret Bush administration program initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, counterterrorism officials have gained access to financial records from a vast international database and examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States, according to government and industry officials. . . .

"The program is grounded in part on the president's emergency economic powers, [Stuart] Levey, [an under secretary at the Treasury Department] said, and multiple safeguards have been imposed to protect against any unwarranted searches of Americans' records. . . .

"The program, however, is a significant departure from typical practice in how the government acquires Americans' financial records. Treasury officials did not seek individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions, instead relying on broad administrative subpoenas for millions of records from the cooperative, known as Swift."

Barton Gellman, Paul Blustein and Dafna Linzer write in The Washington Post: "The White House complained last night that the disclosure could hurt anti-terrorism activities."

Bush on Gas: Hot Air

H. Josef Hebert writes for the Associated Press: " 'Boutique' gasoline blends to help states meet clean air rules are not a factor in higher prices as President Bush has suggested, says a draft of a study ordered by the White House. . . .

"Facing growing public outrage over soaring gasoline prices, Bush ordered the study on April 25 in a speech in which he attributed high gas prices in part to the growth of special fuels."

The War Over the War

Steve Holland and Thomas Ferraro write for Reuters that the White House's aggressive campaign to rally congressional Republicans behind the unpopular Iraq war includes daily updates.

Here's Thursday's: " 'Three things to remember about Iraq:

"--The president's strategy for Iraq is working.

"--The new sovereign government in Iraq is a new opportunity for progress.

"--There are dire consequences if we leave before Iraqis can defend themselves.' "

Are You Ready for Some Tee Ball?

This afternoon, Bush kicks off White House Tee Ball season on the South Lawn.

In today's game, the McGuire Air Force Base Little League Yankees from New Jersey will play the Dolcom Little League Indians of Naval Submarine Base New London in Connecticut.

Costa Rica is Ticked Off

The Associated Press reports: "Costa Rica wants its name erased from the list of countries supporting the invasion of Iraq. But the United States says that's not possible.

"The Costa Rican government initially supported the invasion, but public sentiment was never strong and polls show now that most Costa Ricans oppose the war. . . .

"While the U.S. government removed the Central American nation from the list of the so-called 'coalition of the willing' in 2004, it still appears in archive documents and on related Internet Web sites that haven't been updated."

See, for instance, on the White House Web site: Who are the current coalition members?

Froomkin on the Radio

I'll be on Washington Post Radio today shortly after 2 p.m. ET.

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